It turns out that Atticus Finch is no better than William Willoughby and the other white trash of Maycomb County, Alabama. Atticus is not the heroic civil rights champion author Harper Lee led us to believe in her book To Kill a Mockingbird. Generations of young Americans have been duped. It is now revealed in Lee’s second (really first) book, “Go Set a Watchman,“ that Atticus is a bigot.
This is terrible news. Millions are mourning the loss of a true American hero. But we must not let nostalgia stand in the way of doing the right thing. To Kill a Mockingbird must be banned from our schools and removed from our public libraries. We simply cannot allow our carefully cloistered youth to be exposed to bigots, even if they are fictional. Allowing, let alone requiring, our children to read of Atticus’ apparently cynical defense of a falsely accused black man is tantamount to public endorsement of racism.
Furthermore, the Pulitzer Prize Board should revoke Harper Lee’s 1961 award for fiction and demand that she return the $10,000 prize with interest. It is never too late to correct historic affronts. And the City of Monroeville, Alabama, must remove the Atticus Finch Monument outside the Old Courthouse that reads “Atticus Finch: Lawyer – Hero.” No matter what good he may have done as a young lawyer, he was no hero. We now know that Atticus was deep down a racist, just like most of his contemporaries in 1930s America. Even if Harper Lee has yet another novel hidden in her files in which Atticus seeks redemption, he will forever warrant our condemnation. Once a bigot, always a bigot.
Fortunately, it is a propitious time for cleansing our history of the venal, sexist and racist. A quarter century ago Custer Battlefield National Monument was renamed Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Finally the Confederate Flag has come down from the South Carolina capitol dome. Nathan Bedford Forrest Park, named to honor a Confederate general who was also a slave trader, slave owner and Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, has been renamed Health Sciences Park by the Memphis, Tennessee, city council. Renaming and removal of other monuments to Confederate generals in the South and Indian fighters in the West are in the works. But removing these blights from our public spaces only scratches the surfacae.
There are hundreds of statues and memorials to George Washington, a slave owner who did not even free his slaves at his death. We have a state named for him as well as the district in which our national capital is located. Imagine the offense some must take. Worse yet there are monuments honoring Thomas Jefferson who may have written the Declaration of Independence along with a few other iconic testimonials to individual freedom but bore children with one of his slaves. And don’t forget Christopher Columbus, who is memorialized around the globe for his seafaring explorations notwithstanding that he was singularly responsible for the exploitation and deaths of countless aboriginal inhabitants of the Americas.
Some, including at least a few distinguished historians, object to this historical purification. They argue that history is what it is, that it cannot and should not be cleansed of that which offends modern sensibilities. They contend that our young people should know the truth about the history of their nation and that we can learn much about our predecessors by observing who and what they chose to commemorate. Though well intentioned, these objections to the renaming and removal of historical markers neglect the feelings of our young people and of those who will suffer always from the ill deeds of the past. Better that no one feel threatened and that we all feel good about ourselves than that we confront the terrible truths of historic exploitation and oppression.
Once we cleanse our schools and libraries and the public square of long dead evildoers of the past we should turn our attention to the many who live among us. As the father of two teenage daughters who one day could be White House interns, I suffer particular hurt and anxiety just knowing that there are statues honoring President Bill Clinton. Apparently one Clinton statue in Rapid City, South Dakota, toppled over due to its own deficiencies but has since been re-erected. The only Clinton statue I have seen in person stands in Ballybunion, Ireland, and portrays Clinton playing golf. The locals call it the “prick with the stick.” It is not clear whether they are referring to his notorious cheating on the golf course or in the oval office. In either case the Irish really ought to take it down and save future generations and our sensitivity police the trouble.
By all accounts Bill Clinton is an engaging and likable fellow. So too, I believe, would be Atticus Finch, if he were real. But those types are often the worst. They hide their racism and sexism behind a façade of good will and public prominence, better to achieve their nefarious purposes. Cleansing our schools and public places of reminders of the harsh realities of human social existence is a small price to pay. To Kill a Mockingbird must be banned.